Tuesday, March 24, 2009

They Told Me There'd Be Days Like These

No one ever said it'd be easy to be a Peace Corps volunteer.

Over the last few days I've been revisiting some old questions. Like, "am I an effective volunteer?" or "what sort of impact am I having?" The answer to both of these questions is an unequivocal "I don't know." I think I've been frustrated with the quality of my service lately because it doesn't seem like I'm making any sort of progress. Teaching at school isn't really all that bad, but neither is it extremely great. The kids at Mondial have some good days, but the bad days are just as plentiful. Moreover, many projects I've started seem to be failing or going nowhere. On the other hand, I realize it's hard to gauge one's impact without the benefit of hindsight. Even still, sometimes curiosity gets the best of you and you just have to ask, "have I changed anything?" It's rather frustrating when you look for results and can't find any. I suppose I tend to look for evidence of something big, something tangible, when in reality the fruits of my labor are probably more indistinct.

In addition, it seems I've become more cycnical lately. I remember the pessimism of some of the volunteers I met when I first came to Romania in May 2007. They'd been in country for nealry 2 years, and so they were on their way out. Some of them apparently had a pretty difficult experience, and their depiction of life as a PCV in Romania was decidedly less than flowery. Witnessing their pessimism was somewhat shocking for a bright-eyed, gung-ho newbie like myself, and I promised myself that I'd never become like them. I still refuse to be like them. I mean, there are many things about my experiences up to now that I cherish. However, it certainly hasn't been all hunky-dorey and I can't seem to help but complain a little. In fact, feel like my mood has been more negative than usual the past few weeks. A lot of things that usually wouldn't bother me have been getting on my nerves. I seem to be less tolerant of Romanian culture, less patient. For example, I find myself asking things like "why can't this sidewalk be a flat, paved surface?" or "why are the roads full of holes?" or "why don't people put their trash in the trash can?" or "why is it every that construction project around here takes several years to complete?" or "why won't the waitress look at me when she walks by?" or "what do you mean the documents aren't available?! In the States such information would be public."

I think that last question touches upon part of my problem: I've fallen into the trap of comparing aspects of Romanian society with what I'm accustomed to in the States. Often the comparisons are unfair. Usually I'd write off my daily annoyances as the result of cultural differences. I'd say, "just accept it, this is how things are in Romania." However these sort of differences have been getting to me more and more lately. Perhaps it's that I want to see things change, and they aren't (at least not according to my expectations). Or perhaps it's that I've been here for nearly 2 years now, and I miss being home-- I can see the finish line approaching, and I can't help but envision being back in a land where everything is as it should be. These kind of thoughts are horribly ethnocentric of me, and I hate to admit that they've crossed my mind at some point or another. I shouldn't be thinking in such terms. But, I believe the main contributing factor behind my current cynicism is that my frustrations about being a good volunteer are spilling over into my daily life, making me more sensitive to these little, admittedly insignificant bothers. It just seems that not much is going my way at the moment. Then again, I've felt this way before; it doesn't last forever. During our pre-service training they warned us that Peace Corps service can be like a roller coaster. There are good periods, and bad. Moreover, you fortunes can change suddenly, inexplicably and without warning. One week may be terrible, and the next may be awesome. It's even happened that I've experienced both extremes all within the space of one day. It just happens.

Like I mentioned above, the finish line is approaching. I'll be leaving Romania this summer. I've recently started prepping people for my departure, which has made me begin to realize just how hard it will be to leave. While I certainly miss my family and friends back in the States, this place has become like a second home for me. Life here is now familiar. I've grown accustomed to the sights and sounds of Lugoj. I've made many friends. My apartment is comfortable. And, what is more, I have a land-lady that does my laundry for me (Heaven forbid I should have to do my own laundry when I return to the States!). More than anything, the thought that I'll be leaving reminds me that I'm running out of time to do everything I want to do.

Added to my feelings of ineffectiveness, melancholy about leaving, and grief over the lingering gloomy weather is one more thing: anxiety about what I'll do after Peace Corps. I honestly have absolutely no idea what I'm going to do, and every time someone asks me about it I feel even more pathetic. I had hoped by now I'd have some clear plan for my life, but things are still as murky as they were at the start. However, I'm holding out hope that something will turn up. Something always does.

Notwithstanding my mixed feelings at this point, I can say joining the Peace Corps was a good choice. I'd do it all over again. And, while my time here has had its ups and downs, I'd say things have been more positive overall. Furthermore, I suppose it's something of an accomplishment that I've made it this far. Heck, I remember wondering at the outset how I was going to survive 2 years without a microwave! I'm glad to say I am indeed surviving, and that counts for something, right? We'll see what the last few months have in store...


Jack Nork said...

Very honest and insightful post Mike. I appreciate you documenting your time in Romania, both good and bad! I know for a fact that you are a much wiser and well rounded person because of your experience in the Peace Corps. Love ya!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post Mike. Although I spent only six months overseas compared to your 2 and a half years, I recall feeling the same anxiety as my impending departure drew near. Additionally, it was difficult saying good bye to my friends and new surroundings. In the back of my mind I knew a period of life which could never recapture was slipping through my hands. Ultimately, I understood that my time overseas was my last hurrah before I became a typical American working stiff, and it scared the crap out of me. Like you, I felt I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and I was returning to the job market during an economic downturn. I remember as the plane was accelerating down the runway at Heathrow how sad I felt about leaving (and this was only after six months!). Once I returned to the US, I recall feeling like a stranger in a familiar land for about a month before I acclimated. Even then, I still felt claustrophobic back in my old bedroom in Connecticut. Sorry, I'm not trying to be a downer here, but this likely will be a period where your will temporarily slow down and switch direction in life. This can also be an exciting time, with MANY new paths to choose from. Someday when you're old and grey you will look back at your return as a period in life just as interesting as your time overseas.


InBonobo.com said...

Great article, Mike! Let me try to offer some suggestions:
1. What 2 do after: When travelling through Europe a few years ago, I met one former PCV who was taking the long road home after her assignment in Russia (it was the last year Russia was still accepting PCVs). We had a wonderful time together - I strongly recommend you visit some Central European and eventually Scandinavian countries, for a Euroverview. Furthermore, while being different, the Scandinavian countries (or any other Western European country), will make for a much easier transition to home.

2. It's great that you're so optimistic and are muting your cricism, but it doesn't have to be that way. Part of the reason why things change so slowly is the fact that ppl are politically uninvolved and have very low expectations of what things should be. You could try to change that. You could teach kids a lesson on how things are in USA and compare them with how they are in Romania, emphasizing the struggle to change them, how they got to be different, and what THEY can do to make a difference. If you can pass on some of that CAN-DO spirit and attitude that Americans are known all over the world for, you will have helped them far more than just by teaching English.

3. I luv US of A, but I can't end without telling you that for me as a tourist, it has changed a lot in the past 8 years and many changes are, unfortunately, permanent. I am one of the many people who find the "security theatre" a bit overwhelming and will avoid stepping on American territory as much as possible. So I will suggest to you that your perception of "things being the way they should be in the States" si subjective and determined by your reference, namely being there at home.

Mike Nork said...

Thanks for the kind words, guys :)